This was Amy’s first encounter with a grizzly bear. It was April, the snow was falling so hard you could barely see and we were risking the late season blizzard in hopes to find this sow grizzly, #610, and her cubs. I love photographing grizzlies in the snow. But then again, I love photographing all wildlife in the snow!
We found the family of bears in a small clearing in the woods up on the north side of Grand Tetons National Park. These bears were not long out of hibernation and I had been watching them nearly every day for the past week at this point. So finding them was not too difficult, given I knew their location at sunset the evening before.
My experience with grizzlies over the years did not prepare me for what I was going to witness this day. . .
Amy and I worked I way up a hillside and through the forest where we knelt down at the edge of a clearing to observe. The sow and the 3 cubs were chasing each other around in a giant circle in the snow. The sow would slow a bit, and allow her cubs to tackle her to the ground. Then, she would turn the tables and start chasing them until she knocked them down. She belly flopped into the snow and slid several feet, only for all three of her cubs to dive on top of her. They leaped into the air. They stood on hind legs and fell backwards into the snow. They played together. They had fun together. They secured their bonds as a family. And all of this while Amy and I watched from about 100 feet away in the edge of the forest.
I have never seen such social behavior in the wild except for with wolves. You cannot walk away from this moment thinking animals do not “feel.” You cannot convince yourself of the lie that animals do not have emotions. You cannot experience this, without understanding that these bears experience the world exactly like you do. They have hopes. Dreams. Intentions. and Fears. To say otherwise is to live a self centered delusional life with blinders put in place for the sole purpose of making you feel better about telling yourself you have some sort of dominion over these animals. That you are better than they are. Different they are. And therefore you have some sort of right to control them and their world.
Its moments like this that I live for. Those moments, where the connectivity between me and the natural world, the real world, is reaffirmed. Moments where distinctiveness is broken down and the only thing that is left is simply life, in all its raw beauty.
I did not know it at the time, but this would be the last time anyone would see 610 and these three cubs together. The following morning, she was gone and her cubs were alone for the first time in their lives.
This is all normal stuff. Bears raise their cubs till the age of two or three and then release them into the world on their own – having taught them everything they could about where to find food, how to avoid danger, how to survive.
For me, its an extraordinary thought to know that this mother had planned when she would kick her kids out, and had chosen to spend the day before simply playing and having fun with them.
As for the photography, it sucked. The light was so low that even at ISO 6400, the only usable photographs I was able to create were when 610 slowed things down to a walk. Don’t get me wrong. I love this photograph. It tells a story and it has a wonderful ethereal feel to it – hence the name: storybook bear. The rest of the shoot though, eh – not so hot. But I don’t really care so much. For me, the memory is there. And this is a memory that I will cherish until the day I die.